By Todd Pitman
BANGKOK: Thailand held nationwide elections without bloodshed Sunday despite widespread fears of violence. But the country’s bitter political crisis is far from over, and one of the next flash points is likely to be an effort to nullify the vote.
Although balloting was largely peaceful, protesters forced thousands of polling booths to close in Bangkok and the south, disenfranchising millions of registered voters. Not all Parliament seats will be filled as a result, meaning the nation could stay mired in political limbo for months with the winning party unable to form a new government.
The struggle to hold the vote was part of a 3-month-old conflict that has split the country between supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and protesters who allege her government is too corrupt to rule.
The crisis, in which demonstrators have occupied major intersections across Bangkok and forced government ministries to shut down and work elsewhere, overshadowed the poll’s run-up to such an extent that campaigning and stump speeches laying out party platforms were virtually nonexistent.
Rather than “a contest among candidates, it was about whether the election itself could happen,” said Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch. “That in itself says a lot about the fate of democracy in Thailand — it’s hanging by a thread.”
Television stations, which normally broadcast electoral results, were reduced to projecting graphics not of party victories and losses, but of which constituencies were open or closed.
Official results cannot be announced until a series of by-elections are held and all districts have voted. The first will take place Feb. 23.
In Bangkok, protesters surrounded government offices housing ballot papers, preventing them from being delivered. They also pressured electoral officials not to report for duty, and in some cases physically prevented people from voting.
Infuriated voters cut the chains off polling stations that had been locked, futilely demanding that they be allowed to cast ballots. In one downtown district, they hurled bottles at each other and one demonstrator fired a gunshot after several people tried to push past a blockade. After authorities called off voting there, angry crowds stormed into the district office.
“We want an election. We are Thais,” said Narong Meephol, a 63-year-old Bangkok resident who was waving his voter identification card. “We are here to exercise our rights.”